2013 TSA International Tanka Contest Winners

William Hart and Marian Olson, Judges


First Place ($100)

Between two rows
of rose bushes—
thorns and all—
the narrow path
to your door

        Judy Michaels
        Maumelle, Arkansas

Metaphor is often discouraged in haiku writing; however, in tanka writing, a poet’s taste for metaphor can happily be indulged to the point of a poem becoming all one metaphor, as we find in this quietly artful tanka. Whether the speaker of the poem is a prospective lover or someone making a friend doesn’t matter. What matters is that the suitor recognizes the barbed gauntlet for what it is—a test imposed by someone who is cautious and highly selective. We must assume that the pursued, however prickly in the early going, has considerable rewards to offer a friend who is willing to negotiate the thorny path with trust and sincerity. This is a complex poem that appears simple. It implies far more than it says. Every word in it operates clearly on two levels at once, showing superb technical mastery.


Second Place ($50)

I lay your sad ghost
in the west room
of my heart . . .
the mockingbird sings
what he doesn’t know

        Jenny Ward Angyal
        Gibsonville, North Carolina

The somewhat illusive “sad ghost” of this tanka could be a younger brother or sister. Or one’s wayward offspring. Or a mate that didn’t work out. It is a person beloved, but not approved of. The mockingbird memorizes the songs of all the birds it hears, then splices them together into an astoundingly confused medley delivered at high volume. The babbling music goes on and on, repeating like a looped tape. We can perhaps envision the sad ghost as someone affectionate, charming, and honest to a certain depth, yet ultimately not deep, pulled this way and that by fad and whim, a life with no tiller, tragically flawed. Anyone old enough likely has at least one of these beautiful self-destructs resting in a special place in the heart’s chamber of memories.


Third Place ($25)

all the things
I don’t know about him
the soft sound
as he plays his mandolin
to no one in particular

        Michele L. Harvey
        Hamilton, New York

The beauty of this tanka lies in the mood established by the use of simple, precise words. Everything is soft: the tone, the sweetness of the mandolin, the mysteriousness of the man as his fingers strum the instrument, lost in meanings only he knows. Who is he, this man whose music surprises the speaker? What music is he playing? Some blue grass? Some jazz? A classical riff? Whatever it is engages both poet and audience while he plays his mandolin in his own private space.


Honorable Mentions (Not Ranked)

as a child
she found it difficult
to say goodbye . . .
now bone-thin hands
clutch the blanket’s edge

        Susan Constable
        Nanoose Bay, British Columbia

Hardwired as we are to innate passions and fears, this tanka captures the universal sense of loss that comes with separation from those we love. Throughout life these feelings can teach us to face such fears—even overcome them—if we can or will. In this case, however, the old woman on the edge of the final precipice of her own death exhibits an even deeper fear of letting go, terrified of what lies beyond. With clear and accessible phrasing, the speaker shows us the old woman’s terror without one word of telling. The impact lies in the poet’s sensitive and expert use of language.

chimney smoke
mingles with winter cloud
my life’s outline
in the greyscale
of his moods

        Michele L. Harvey
        Hamilton, New York

Chimney smoke is grey. So is winter cloud. And a greyscale is a photographer’s spectrum of colors between white and black. One can easily imagine the speaker as an older woman trapped in a house in winter, and trapped as well in a long, dour relationship generating little positive feeling and no spark—a life endlessly grey. Chekhov might have written a story about a woman like this, comfortable enough physically but dead in her emotional connections. Such lives can end in violence. More often they simply play out as the greyscale of passing days shifts to black. Interestingly, the poet lightens this disturbing marital tableau with an attractive opening image and harmonious language.

my father’s tears
during the funeral
of his only son
I bury my grief
just like he taught me

        Lauren Mayhew
        Somerville, Massachusetts

This simple tanka, clear as a morning bell ringing through the streets of a small city, reveals one of our cultural biases: big girls don’t cry. Oh the irony then as the father and teacher of his daughter, breaks into tears at his only son’s funeral. The last two lines augment the preceding three lines by creating a wry tension in this outstanding poem.


Contest Coordinator: Lesley Swanson (150 entries)